President Zelensky addresses the Grammies in April

Why are we supporting Ukraine?

A cautionary note about vicarious war


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Ukrainian flag and its colours are proliferating across the British landscape, virtual and real. They are to be seen fluttering above town halls, on people’s social media pages, at football grounds, illuminating buildings, while outside the gates of a fishmongers in Shoreham a massive shrimp has been repainted blue and yellow, its pincers now holding a Molotov (prawn!) cocktail. 

Accompanying such visual displays has been an outpouring of fundraising efforts, a generosity of spirit washing across the nation. Simultaneously, businesses, universities, local and district councils are actively severing ties with Russia, often far beyond the requirements of official sanctions.

UK and Ukrainian flags fly in Church Street, Twickenham

“We stand with Ukraine,” say the banners. Indeed, there is a pervasive sense in which — at least for the moment — we are all Ukrainians now. Solidarity and sympathy with a victim nation is understandable, alongside outrage and concern at an unexpectedly aggressive Russian action. 

Strategically, military planners possibly spy an interest in sucking Russia into a drawn out quagmire, depleting its military resources, sapping its morale, and in so doing bolstering Western power. Yet notions of sympathy and strategic incentives don’t fully capture the generalised mood of emotional investment and angst, but also projective consummation at the prospect of reflected glory deriving from the conflict.

From Finlandisation to Europeanisation

On the face of it, such a level of support for Ukraine is not self-evident. Ever since the end of the Cold War, Ukraine has suffered widespread corruption and failed to fully meet European and Western standards of governance. In 2016 the EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, suggested a time horizon of 20-25 years for both EU and NATO membership. Indeed, luminaries of Western strategic thinking, such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, at least since 2014, have argued that Ukraine would be better off recognising itself as a geopolitical buffer. It should “Finlandise”, something also recently suggested by President Macron.

Vicarious identities are tempting because they can help us uphold a sense of self-identity

Today, though, the situation is very different. For instance, the initial days of the conflict were marked by Western journalists “discovering” the hitherto unknown “European” ambience of Ukrainian cities and that their residents look just like us. Setting aside the sometimes racialised dimensions of such observations, from being on its cognitive margins Ukraine has been positioned as emblematic of European civilisation, sometimes being described as at the “heart of Europe”. 

This bears stark comparison with the wars of the 1990s that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia. Then, Western discourse emphasised their strangeness, their tribalism, and not least their “Balkan” element, a rhetorical and psychological distancing that facilitated an approach of disengagement and containment, a position that changed only once Bosnia and Herzegovina was identified as fighting for “European” cosmopolitan values. 

By contrast, Ukraine’s current “European” framing means that their fight is not simply supported, but is frequently represented as a fight for “us”, and in that, also, in some sense, “our” fight, with Ukraine even represented as the embodiment of “us” — that is, “we too” are under attack.

Vicarious Identity

Beyond simply identifying and sympathising with the Ukrainians, we are living through them, internalising their experiences as our own. Consider, for instance, the comments of the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, who was caught on camera at the start of the conflict, talking to soldiers at the Horse Guards building in Whitehall suggesting that:

We should send the Gurkhas in. We should send the Scots Guards, kicked the backside of Tsar Nicholas I in 1853 in Crimea — we can always do it again.

But as Western governments have made palpably clear, in particular in rejecting Ukrainian calls for NATO to implement a “no fly zone”, we are not going to go over there. Consequently, all we have is vicarious identification, either with historical episodes such as the ignominious Charge of the Light Brigade of 1854, or with Ukrainians who are actually fighting (for us) today.

This speaks to a much longer history of debates about Western decline

And of course, the Ukrainian government has gone to great lengths to actively encourage others to vicariously invest in their fight. Most obvious was President Zelensky’s speech to the House of Commons on 9 March in which he directly referenced the culturally resonant British fight against the Nazis and invoked Churchillian rhetoric about fighting at sea, on the land, in the air, whatever the cost, and not surrendering. 

But similar practices are also evident in Ukraine’s engagement of social media, specifically their clever use of ironic humour, epitomised in the numerous TikToks referencing the “Ukrainian Tractor Brigade” towing away abandoned Russian tanks. Such memes actively appeal to and foster a shared ironic sensibility that closes the gap between us and them, inviting us to identify with the humble and industrious Ukrainian farmer vis-à-vis a (presumed incompetent) Russian soldier. 

Vicarious identities are tempting because they can help us uphold a sense of self-identity, status and self-esteem, particularly in situations in which we may feel that we are lacking or falling short in some way. Typically, targets of vicarious identification are valued because they have become viewed as bearers of “master signifiers”, or attributes, to which we are deeply attached and understand as central to our sense of being and self-understanding. 

From a Western perspective these include signifiers such as “liberty”, “freedom”, “democracy” and “Europe”. However, aside from Ukraine, and although to a lesser extent, other vectors of vicarious identification have also appeared that have similarly operated as cover for the potential shame we might otherwise feel at our own helplessness. 

For instance, we have seen an interesting sense of societal enjoyment at the activities of the hacktivist group Anonymous, and perhaps more particularly, the somewhat ironic embracing of Elon Musk for his activation of the Starlink satellite internet service to the Ukrainian cause, but in which “our” (freedom loving) oligarch is pitted against Russia’s (corrupt) oligarchs. Of course, Musk is never referred to as an oligarch, only ever as an eccentric billionaire who has also challenged the Russian president to a fight, the spoils of which would be Ukraine. 

The Declining West

So, what are the identities in construction — what is this “we” that we keep hearing so much about? Most notable has been the proclaimed, and to some extent evident, reconstitution of the political West, a reconstitution that initially was met with a sense of unexpected surprise that soon had a euphoric edge to it, a strange self-recognition that perhaps the West exists after all. 

Yet, there was also a sense of caution as to whether the sudden upsurge in common purpose and community would last beyond an initial indignation at Russian actions. Of course, we are only weeks into this war and there is plenty of time for disagreements to emerge, particularly as the implications of sanctions and mass refugee movements on the West begin to bite. But to be clear, as recently as February it wasn’t just Putin who expected to confront a disunited and disjointed West.

This speaks to a much longer history of debates about Western decline. Following an initial period of post-Cold War triumphalism, most indelibly linked to Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation about the end of history, already in the years following 9/11 the notion that the West was in trouble and fracturing was evident. 

For instance, back in 2003, Robert Kagan famously declared the West was split, more or less down the Atlantic, a split he likened as one between Mars and Venus. The metaphor, in other words, depicted the Martian Americans as living in a geopolitical world where power politics still matters, while the Venutian Europeans were living in some kind of idealised (and for Kagan, illusory) Kantian paradise. 

However, it wasn’t long before Europe itself was depicted as similarly split between a more pro-American and pro-military interventionist “New Europe” comprised of newer members of the EU and NATO, but also the UK, and an “Old Europe” of France, Germany and others, inherently sceptical about American military adventures.

Throughout the early 2000s, polemics about the end of the West had become common and were referenced in the popularity of books and articles with titles like: Suicide of the West, The Death of the West, “The ‘Broken’ West”, The End of the West, The Divided West, “The West May Be Cracking”, and “Does ‘the West’ Still Exist?” — these latter two notably both by Fukuyama and suggesting that he too had caught the pessimistic vibe.

Common to the emergence of declinist narratives were two claims as to what any such decline might be attributed to — external challenge and/or internal decay. 

In respect of external challenge, there has been a growing sense that the West can no longer compete against rising world powers, in particular China, or more particularly that it has gone soft and lacks the backbone to do so. 

All that remains, then, is to hope to manage the decline and the handover of the reins of geopolitical dominance while seeking to preserve key elements of the established international system as curated by the Western powers. However, as evidenced by the chaos that marked the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the West’s ability to do this has been far from evident. 

The internal critique is different. On the right, and within conservative thought, the internal challenge is generally characterised as one in which the West is depicted as suffering from malaise and complacency, but also as wracked by unwarranted guilt and shame at its past, such that it has lost all faith in itself. Instead of action, the West is more prone to doubt. 

From this perspective, the villain and cause of Western decline is often laid at the feet of the rise of philosophical deconstructionism and postmodernism with its claimed emphasis on a moral relativism that saps the will of Westerners to stand up for and defend fundamental principles. 

It is this view that underpinned the speech to the Conservative Party’s spring conference on 19 March by the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss. Reflecting on the war in Ukraine, she proclaimed:

We have to be proud of our country and our long standing commitment to freedom and democracy. Now is the time to end the culture of self-doubt, the constant self-questioning and introspection, the ludicrous debates about languages, statues, and pronouns. Our history, warts and all, is what makes us what we are today. We live in a great country, a great democracy, and we should be proud of it.

On the left, however, the internal challenge is instead framed as one of the rise of an increasingly illiberal populism. Here, the criticism isn’t simply that global order is becoming ever more post-liberal with the rise of China and other powers (including an increasingly nationalist India), but that the West itself is becoming “post-liberal”. This interpretation has become increasingly common in the wake of Trump, Brexit, and the broader rise of populism across Europe, especially in Hungary and Poland.

The Redemptive West 

Now, though, at least for the moment, some of these doubts have been cast aside. Liberalism is back and the West stands again! The allegedly post-liberal West is apparently rediscovering liberalism and associated master signifiers (democracy, freedom) as a core identity, and to some degree it has discovered a sense of trans-European and trans-Atlantic coherence and a will to act. 

Indeed, within this, there is also nestled the subplot of a more particular British revival, a chance to put meat on the bones of post-Brexit proclamations of “Global Britain” and to reassert the country’s strategic relevance to the West, a leading voice in European defence and a bridge to America. 

Hence, we have seen a renewed championing of British intelligence, an emphasis on the UK’s bolstering of defence commitments to the Baltic States, the active provisioning of “lethal military aid” to Ukraine, and not least, the Prime Minister seeking to position himself as coordinating Western efforts against Russia with his somewhat disingenuous “six-point plan”.

At some point, the glorious and almost mythical defence of the Ukrainians may begin to appear less glorious

Yet, this narrative of decline and resurrection is less surprising than it may appear in the present moment. Historically, narratives of the West almost always have this redemptive quality about them. Indeed, ever since the coining of the West as a political concept — notably in Russia in the 1820s and 1830s as a part of attempts to forge Russian narratives of self-identity — the West is almost always narrated as on the brink of declining, decaying and dying, but where such a narration also typically entails an injunction to act now, to reverse the direction of travel, and thereby reclaim the West. 

Indeed, there are very few narratives of the West that depict a finality and one-way direction of decline. For that, you need to go back to Oswald Spengler’s classic text from 1928, The Decline of the West. In contrast to Spengler, though, in contemporary declinist narratives it is sometimes even the cause of claimed decay that is seen to offer potentials for redemption. 

For instance, in 2010 the French philosopher, Pascal Bruckner, depicted the West as “wallowing in shame and self-loathing” and as wracked by a “tyranny of guilt” for its past misdemeanours and as a result all too “ready to shoulder the blame for the poverty of Africa or Asia, to sorrow over the world’s problems, to assume responsibility for them”. Yet, in this he also sees the basis for recovery and renewed Western superiority, since for him it is the West’s unique capacity for self-reflection that makes it able to rectify its mistakes and marks it out as different from the non-West. 

In the current context, one might think about the much derided by some, but championed by others, text of Richard Moore, the chief honcho at MI6. As Moore tweeted: “With the tragedy and destruction unfolding so distressingly in Ukraine, we should remember the values and hard-won freedoms that distinguish us from Putin, none more than LGBT+ rights. So let’s resume our series of tweets to mark #LGBTHM2022”. Here, what some people might see as further evidence of self-indulgent wokeist self-loathing and virtue signalling is repurposed as part of the fight for liberal order and fundamental (Western) freedoms.

Vicarious War:  A Cautionary Note

This rediscovery of the West is at least partially premised on an intriguing process of vicarious identification with the Ukrainian fight. However, several things can be noted about this that might also give pause for some consideration.

First, in this process a securitisation of Western subjectivity is evident whereby Western coherence is now framed in terms of defence of freedom against a Russian autocrat, a process of othering that may ultimately only mask rather than resolve Western fragilities. 

Within this, important historical legacies and resonances are also in play. In particular, the fact that Russia has often played this role of constitutive other to the West, a convenient and “worthy” enemy, and as such, an enemy it becomes increasingly difficult to give up on. 

Ukrainian troops training in January to use British NLAW anti-tank weapons in preparation for the Russian invasion

For at least a decade now, rhetorical references to a “new Cold War” with Russia have occupied parts of the Western strategic community. In other words, this is a Russia we recognise, but also a Russia some value because if “Russia” is “Russia”, “we” can once more be the “West.” 

In Western military circles there has, for some time, been a surprising nostalgia for great power war. Specifically, there has been a growing dissatisfaction and frustration with the messy and indecisive engagements of the War on Terror that some military folks have experienced as emasculating. As expressed by one senior defence official in the Pentagon in 2018, “real men fight real wars. We like the clarity of big wars.” Or as another American defence official expressed it: “A professional boxer who trains against lesser opponents doesn’t improve.” But as it happens, America won’t fight and has to settle for vicarious participation in this latest big war.

To be clear, there is much to applaud in our identifying and empathising with Ukraine’s fight, but we should be mindful about what drives aspects of our support. Consider, for example, the evident satisfaction expressed by the Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden at being able to report in an LBC interview that Ukrainian fighters are proclaiming “God Save the Queen” whenever they fire a British-donated bazooka. It can be tempting, for instance, to “sponsor a tank” on Patreon and to want to give Putin a bloody nose, but the people doing so are not us, but Ukrainians experiencing terror and death daily.

One uncomfortable aspect about the nature of the military support being provided, therefore, is that it is sufficient to enable the Ukrainians to continue defending, fighting and dying, but not enough to enable them to prevail. 

Yet, it is also notable that since the start of the war our projected desire for a Ukrainian (read Western) victory has also been reflected in Western media reporting on the conflict, which has typically talked up Ukrainian successes, emphasised Russian blunders and atrocities, but has had perilously little to say about Ukrainian military casualties, “blue-on-blue” incidents, or supply-line difficulties, and as such has failed to provide a more sombre assessment of the situation on the ground.

A final point is to recognise that processes of vicarious identification have certain vulnerabilities baked into them, since in general they mask a lack of one’s own capacities, ability or will to become engaged, but also tend to be episodic, coming in waves of intensity and dissipation. 

It remains to be seen, therefore, how long this lasts. At some point, for instance, the glorious and almost mythical defence of the Ukrainians may begin to appear less glorious. What if, for example, it descends into a slaughter? Or what if starving Ukrainians start fighting amongst themselves, as has been reported already in some places? Or what if stories of Ukrainian atrocities become more manifest and routine? Vicarious identification is vulnerable to our changing moods and limited attention spans. Thus, what if we just start to get bored and invest in other stories instead, like spats at the Oscars? What then will be the consequences for Ukrainians?

Some of our support for Ukraine’s fight may be purely strategic, or connected to feelings of mutual vulnerability: if this can happen to Ukraine, then where might Putin deploy Russian forces next? Other reasons reflect very human processes of identifying with the victims of an egregious attack and outrage at the death and suffering being inflicted on innocent civilians, but also anxieties connected to how the attack has destabilised widely held views about the nature of the world we live in, and a fear that the constitutive rules of global and European politics may be changing. The world we “knew” is ending — hence the accusations that we have been guilty of self-satisfaction and complacency.

All these things are true. Tied to these, though, is that support for Ukraine has also become central to a politics of “becoming” in which Ukraine features as a proxy enabling the Western subject to reconstitute itself once more, but where such practices also entail potentially troubling consequences and limitations.

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